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Linux On Older Hardware 379

Joe Barr writes "Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier has put together a substantive report on how well Linux runs on older hardware. Are you surprised to learn that the belch of smoke and FUD out of Redmond on the topic last month isn't true? As Zonker shows, 'The bottom line: Linux is still quite suitable for older hardware. It might not turn your aging PC into a powerhouse, but it will extend its lifespan considerably.' NewsForge, like Slashdot, is part of OSTG."
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Linux On Older Hardware

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  • Old hardware? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Aokubidaikon ( 942336 ) on Saturday February 25, 2006 @11:45PM (#14802537) Homepage
    Microsoft lately has been challenging Linux's suitability for older hardware

    I'd love to try to get Windows Vista running on my old 366Mhz Dell laptop...
  • I don't get it. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ThatGeek ( 874983 ) on Saturday February 25, 2006 @11:49PM (#14802548) Homepage
    Ok, a few things.

    1) What's the point of this article? Linux worked on these machines when they were state of the art. Is it such a revelation that it still works on these machines?

    2) Would Microsoft suggest that Linux is less suitable for a computer with 4 mb of video ram than a copy of Windows Vista or XP? The DRM alone would sap the system's resources.

    3) I know that Slashdot's parent company owns newsforge, but would it have been hard to put in a direct link to the article? Here it is: 51 []

    4) Geeks can now smile that yes, in deed, their operating system runs on old computers. OK, now what? What's the significance? Is it that people won't have to upgrade? Is it that they can keep their old boxes around? Surely if they still had them, they would know this already. And it won't make Windows users want to switch as they are all running their apps on shiny new(er) boxes anyway.
  • by kcbrown ( 7426 ) <> on Saturday February 25, 2006 @11:52PM (#14802558)
    ...from a highly stripped-down distribution (such as muLinux []) to a highly featureful one (such as Ubuntu []).

    So of course it can run, and run well, on older hardware. The only question is what you have to give up to make it work well.

  • by Silverlancer ( 786390 ) on Saturday February 25, 2006 @11:55PM (#14802565)
    Windows 98, I've always felt, was a drastically underrated version of Windows. It was only a 200MB install, in comparison to the 500MB of Windows ME and gigabyte plus of Windows XP. And its workings, by comparison, were simple. For example, Windows 98 had the option to completely turn off the usage of the swap file until memory is filled. Doing so made the entire system run from memory, vastly speeding up the system. As far as I know this is impossible in Windows XP. If you have an old system and toss a bunch of extra memory in it (pennies for older systems) you can make it run incredibly fast using Windows 98. I have an older laptop that I recently "inherited" from a friend. It took about 5 minutes to boot up and 30 seconds to even open a folder. I wiped it, installed Windows 98, tweaked it a bit, and installed Firefox. It now runs beautifully, as fast as my main computer. When I use Windows 98, it almost seems to me as if XP was designed to slow down your computer. Too bad most modern software no longer supports it.
  • Re:I don't get it. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by LiMikeTnux ( 770345 ) <{miket} {at} {}> on Saturday February 25, 2006 @11:56PM (#14802570) Homepage
    "Linux worked on these machines when they were state of the art. Is it such a revelation that it still works on these machines?"

    thats a bit broad of a statement...after all, i could say windows still runs on a 486 with 8mb system ram....its windows 3.1, but its still windows...
    but modern linux distros still play nicely with aged hardware...THAT is the point.
  • by billstewart ( 78916 ) on Sunday February 26, 2006 @12:15AM (#14802615) Journal
    I _think_ it was SVR4, but the late 80s are fairly old memory by now so it could have been SVR2, and maybe it was X11.* by then. Sure, it wasn't as fast as a Sun4, much less the HP graphics workstation we had which had 48MB of video RAM, but basically it worked pretty well.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 26, 2006 @01:06AM (#14802746)
    I'm suprised I haven't seen it mentioned yet, but the reason I would use Linux on older machines over older Microsoft OS' like Windows 95/95/ME/2000 is because Linux gives you the benefit of still being a supported OS. The problem with older versions of Windows is that Microsoft simply gives up on them. Even if there's some absolutely critical security flaw, Microsoft simply stop caring.

    Compare this to Linux and you can use a new, fully patched, fully secure, fully tested release and scale it down to run on your old hardware, I think that's the key difference that's been missed by some here when recommending just using older Windows releases instead.

    Put simply, using Linux on an old box means you can run an old box with modern software - modern in that is uptodate in terms of features, security updates and hardware support. It basically feels like when Microsoft gives up on an OS that OS is in a timefreeze, don't expect to have much luck with some hardware/software/security problem that emerged after MS gave up on it, compare that to Linux however and generally you'll have much more luck with resolving said hardware/software/security issue on the same hardware because some kind Linux developer, I guess that's the wonder of open source compared to proprietary.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 26, 2006 @01:19AM (#14802773)
    I read the microsoft old hardware stuff on the eweek link. What zonker tested was totally different, all distros that are lightweight. Why not test the distros that most of the world actually uses (it's called market share) such as Red Hat Enterprise Server or Novell SuSE server? I don't think anyone in Redmond is arguing XP versus damn small linux - get real.
  • by signingis ( 158683 ) <signingis&hotmail,com> on Sunday February 26, 2006 @02:01AM (#14802869) Journal
    Because then they would only be able to get hits on one website instead of two. Less ads would be seen.
  • Re:Tecra 500CDT (Score:3, Insightful)

    by strider44 ( 650833 ) on Sunday February 26, 2006 @05:58AM (#14803310)
    Just wait one second! You say that Windows XP runs nicely after turning off the huge amount of bloat including the theme, the colour depth and the font engine, then complain about the bloat in KDE or Gnome? Did you think about actually turning off some of the extra eye candy? Perhaps changing the style (may I suggest the Classic KDE style?), most definitely the colour depth and perhaps other meaningless eyecandy such as auto-rendering of images in Konqueror.

    You could after all be a little less hypocritical with your comparison.
  • Re:Pentium II? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by StarkRG ( 888216 ) <> on Sunday February 26, 2006 @06:19AM (#14803353)
    That was kinda my point... I don't consider Pentium II to be older hardware unless you qualify it with "older than..." It's older like I'm older than my sister, it's older like my mother is older than me, but it's not older like Hugh Heffner is... (he's the oldest person that's still alive that I could think of without doing research, not that I know how old he is... he just looks old... but that's besides the point)

    486 is pretty old, but it's still pretty darn useful, 386 is getting to the point of uselesness, but not quite there. I'd be interested in someone getting Linux to run on older hardware, which is what I thought this article would be talking about. But Pentiums? Pentium IIs? nah.

    I've had Linux running rather well (with X, though not KDE or Gnome) on a 486, and had I had a 386 to try it out on I'd have done that too...
  • Tools for the job (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Sunday February 26, 2006 @08:10AM (#14803535)
    But anyway basically you're saying that if I were to run a 5 year old Linux distro on the machine it would give comparable performance to Windows XP?
    I'll say go for the right tool for the job - vector linux is a current distribution that runs at a very good speed on hardware with a quarter of the specs of what you have. Even Fedora4 should run at a decent speed with enough memory - my primary work machine for the last year has been only a 600MHz machine (with 512MB of memory to make it run fast) - and it has two instances of X, two window managers, a VNC server, a pile of cluster monitoring tools, a web server (for internal use), MySQL and mozilla running at all times, openoffice occasionally - and it's running Fedora3.

    Once you run out of memory a slow laptop drive starting to swap virtual memory is going to bring the system to it's knees - so give up on the eye candy if you don't have the memory and use something with the whistles and bells turned off. Gnome may be nice to look at but it's performance is horrible on low end hardware.

    Current linux kernals are running on dog slow embedded hardware with very low memory, so if you have it running slowly on a 700MHz machine something is very wrong. Ask about - and tell people how much memory you have because you never want a laptop to use virtual memory in any OS if you can help it, and more importantly tell people what you want to actually do with the thing - and someone will be to recommend something that will be able to do the job.

    Sorry, but one story of a quick attempt and failure does not make it a myth, and sadly most experience you have with windows XP does not carry over to any other OS. One of the first things any of my users that get XP ask me to do is to make it look like Win2k - so I think the user friendly desktop OS idea is entirely relative to when you learned about computers and so disagree with your description of XP.

    No-one should expect you to learn about *nix overnight and one of the less easy bits is to set it up correctly - but a distro can do it for the hardware the distro it is targeted for. I'd suggest trying Vectorlinux then put any apps you want that it doesn't have on top of it - it's linux after all, if another distro has better drivers just upgrade what you have to the same kernel (but with old hardware the drivers will be there in a solid form already), and applications should be able to go across architectures - so between distributions is trivial (and if they are static they will just run).

  • by Lodragandraoidh ( 639696 ) on Monday February 27, 2006 @12:30PM (#14809048) Journal
    I recently picked up a perfectly functional 486-dx 66mhz Cyrix clone cpu laptop (circa 1993 - made by AST - Canadian company which no longer exists) for $45 from my local Goodwill computer store. It came with 20 MB ram, a 500 MB hard drive, two pcmcia ports, and the usual mix of parallel, serial and keyboard ports. The LCD monitor on it works perfectly, all of the keyboard functions work, and it has a built-in trackball that also is in working order. The outer case is in nearly immaculate condition - only a few scratches here and there. The battery needs to be refurbished or replaced - that is true of any 13 year old laptop.

    It was running DOS 4.1 when I got it (I assume this is what it was originally loaded with). I decided to improve its utility by loading Slackware 10.2 on it (You can see the full blown procedure I used here []). I did not want to use the Zipslack install method (as mentioned in the article, you have some performance issues I could not afford on such old equipment). Without a CDROM, I would need to furthermore modify the installation process. I happen to have a Iomega parallel port zip drive, so I used the boot disk for the zipslack installation to access this drive. The boot disk assumes your root disk(s) will be on the parallel port device. The problem with that is that while the zipslack install disk can recognize and use the zip drive for installation, the regular installation root disks do not (have to talk to Patrick about that). Luckily, you can specify another mount location (just not the parallel port drive) - so I set aside a 100MB partition on the hard drive, and used that for the installation.

    I booted the system from floppy using the zipslack root disk and the standard installation floppies. Then I mounted the parallel port zip drive, and partitioned, formated and mounted the 'source' partition on the hard drive. After that it was a simple matter to copy over the slackware packages I had earlier copied onto a zip disk from my workstation. Finally I kicked off the setup utility after partitioning the hard drive's remaining space. After that, the install was normal. Starting with a 350 MB root partition (used 50MB for swap, and the 100MB source) - I ended up with 25% free space (used about 225 MB for the packages I loaded). I was also able to free up the 100MB source partition afterwards - so I have a whopping 175MB to play with.

    Note that I did not load all the packages available from the Slackware distro - most of the A and AP packages, the key network packages, and some development packages (python). So, no X-windows. However, I found an application called 'twin' (Textmode WINdow environment) [] that emulated an X server, providing multiple text-based windows that have all the usual controls (resizing, scrollbars, window shade, minimize etc). Twin runs very fast on the 486, and provides the multiple window capability (including copy/paste between windows) that you would need for most jobs. Twin is an older program - last updated in 2003, which I had to build on my workstation, then move over to the laptop via the zipdrive.

    Without a graphics capability, most of the modern tools available in KDE or GNOME are out of reach - but that is okay. I use 'jed' editor (emulates emacs commands - but smaller footprint), and am writing my own tools in python - basically to capture thoughts, and provide automation for uploading my field-notes onto my server when connected to my home network (saving my pennies to get a pcmcia NIC soon).

    Extending the life of the laptop was well worth the trouble. While it may not be cutting edge in terms of looks - for what I do it gets the job done.

"Hey Ivan, check your six." -- Sidewinder missile jacket patch, showing a Sidewinder driving up the tail of a Russian Su-27